Every year Chicago theater heats up as the weather begins to cool, but this autumn has quickly turned especially hot with high quality work, most all of it original. The likes of David Rabe, Mary Zimmerman and Broadway producer Kevin McCollum are all involved in the robust crop, and notably, the most significant work is emerging from the theaters’ second, and even third, spaces.
At Chicago Shakespeare, for example, the mainstage hosts a sold-out, illusion-infused “Tempest” co-directed by magician Teller. But five flights up, its smaller second stage hosts a little musical called “Ride the Cyclone” that seems awfully likely to make a major impact.
The show (pictured above), by writer-composers Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, originated in Saskatchewan, Canada, and after playing in other parts of the country, it’s been given additional development support here, with producer McCollum (“Avenue Q,” “Something Rotten!”) already attached. Still, it surprises with just how unusual, and unusually good, it is. Want a cheery one-line plot synopsis? It’s about six teenagers who die in a freak roller coaster accident — or, rather, have already died. Under the snarky omniscience of a death-predicting Amazing Karnak machine, who tells us at the start that a rat will destroy his own power cord within hours, the teenagers exist in a sort of purgatory, with Karnak explaining that by the end one will be given the chance to return to the living.
The exquisite score ranges wildly, from a high-energy pop dance number that recalls Michael Jackson to a Marlene Dietrich-ish cabaret piece, and that’s just within the first few songs. Each teenager is given his or her own sound, and thus own voice. Despite the types they represent — the overachiever, the gay teen who’s never been kissed, the sci-fi geek, the underappreciated sidekick, etc. — the writers and Chicago director Rachel Rockwell ensure that each character has an opportunity to develop into someone rich and real, even if their lives in their small, uranium-mining town were not exactly eventful.
Other than being simultaneously dark, funny, and poignantly life-affirming, the show stands out for how it privileges its characters’ inner lives, making a case that it’s not just good to appreciate the smaller pleasures in life, but that dreaming is a form of living itself.
Meanwhile, at the city’s venerable Steppenwolf, the theater’s 1988 success with John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” made the new Frank Galati adaptation of the author’s “East of Eden” among the most anticipated shows of the season. With severe highs and lows, the work needs some rethinking (and recasting) to balance its current mix of epic realism and good-and-evil melodrama. But a few yards away, at the institution’s third space, the black-box Steppenwolf Garage hosts the single biggest surprise of the season, the phenomenal new play “Charm” from Northlight Theater, the large suburban company that commissioned the play and is staging it in the city as a late addition to its season.
Inspired by a true story, the play (pictured above) by prolific Chicago writer Philip Dawkins (“The Homosexuals”) is about a 61-year old transgender African-American woman who starts an Emily Post-informed etiquette class for a varied and troubled collection of teens (and adults) at the city’s support center for LGBTQ youth.
Dexter Zollicoffer, as the teacher Miss Darleena, delivers a complex portrait of someone committed to helping her community and especially equipped to do so as a role model for transgender kids, who look up to her immediately. But having based her own behavior on Emily Post, and convinced that what the kids need most is to learn proper behavior and “how to be charming,” Miss Darleena’s own notions of gender roles get put through the wringer.
The play is filled with quips that keep stretches of the work light even as the stories it tells are real and serious and deep. Dawkins shows just how fluid “gender” can be as stereotypes, which impact the characters as much as they inform our initial impressions, peel away. It’s entertaining, extraordinarily moving, thoughtful and thought-provoking.
At its own mainstage in Skokie, Northlight has its own high quality work in the new play “Funnyman,” written by Bruce Graham and starring George Wendt. Inspired by the story of Bert Lahr, the play is about an aging and famous Vaudevillian comic who accepts a role in an avant-garde work (similar to Lahr’s casting in “Waiting for Godot”). The piece has a bit of a television-movie tone to it (Graham produces the series “Cedar Cove” for the Hallmark Channel), but the work hits a high bar, from the script, which focuses on the actor’s daughter and her struggle to learn about her father, to the performances by Wendt and Tim Kazurinsky.
Other new works worthy of note include Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of “Treasure Island” at Lookingglass Theater — which, seen in a preview performance, tells the pirate tale intelligently but doesn’t yet surprise us with Zimmerman’s usual imagination — and the recently closed “Feathers and Teeth,” a horror comedy by Charise Castro Smith, which is smart, well-constructed and entertaining, but could use just a few more genuine thrills.
But it’s the Gift Theater that has what must be considered the coup of the season: snagging the rights to produce a world premiere by 75-year-old Rabe (“Sticks and Bones,” Hurlyburly”). And if anyone worried that Rabe might be rusty, such concerns dissipate quickly in “Good for Otto.”
Based on material from the book and blog by psychologist Richard O’Connor, the play (pictured below) focuses on a mental health clinic in New England where two noble, overworked therapists seek to assist a range of characters with varied challenges, from dealing with grief and anger to keeping connected to reality to finding a reason to get out of bed. The play is long, dark, and deep (not adjectives unexpected for a Rabe play), but also thoroughly compelling and beautifully performed under the direction of Gift’s a.d. Michael Patrick Thornton. With a cast of 15 in a theater seating about 50, it feels like a true old-school, quintessential Chicago theatrical experience.